Cinema Knife Fight: CLOVERFIELD (2008)
by Michael Arruda & L.L. Soares
(The scene: a deserted city street. L. L. SOARES is looking into a video camera while he shakes it violently. MICHAEL ARRUDA stands out of camera shot)
LS: I don’t know what’s happening! Some kind of monster is tearing the city apart!
MA: Did you see that?
(There is a roar in the background)
MA: Holy sh–!
LS: What is it?!
(A giant purple dinosaur pops its head up above the buildings)
DINOSAUR: (singing) I like you, you like me! Howdy boys and girls!
LS: Let’s get out of here!
(They run screaming down the steps into an abandoned subway station)
LS: That was close!
MA: (breathing hard): You would pick this weekend to visit the city.
LS: We had to. We’re here in New York City reviewing CLOVERFIELD, the new giant monster movie from director Matt Reeves and produced by someone named J.J. Abrams, a name that might be familiar to you if you’ve watched shows like ALIAS and LOST.
CLOVERFIELD has been a hush-hush project for months now. The first trailer that was released months back kept the movie very vague and then bits and pieces started showing up on the internet. Characters from the movie started popping up on places like MySpace. It’s been since dubbed a “viral marketing” campaign, but the truth is all this secrecy and teasing has generated a lot of buzz about the movie. In a way, the hype beforehand reminds me of another movie that got a lot of attention for its marketing tactics, SNAKES ON A PLANE.
But unlike SNAKES, which I thought was a pretty crappy movie, CLOVERFIELD lives up to the hype.
The plot is simple enough. The movie begins as if it is footage that was found in a video camera, and it says “Property of the Department of Defense” all over it.
We then see a group of people who are having a going-away party for Rob Hawkins (Michael Stahl-David), their buddy who has recently been promoted to Vice President of his firm and is leaving to work in Japan. His best friend Hud (T.J. Miller) is doing the camerawork – going around the room getting “testimonials” from Rob’s friends, who are bidding him good-bye. We are also introduced to Rob’s brother Jason (Mike Vogel), and his girlfriend Lily (Jessica Lucas), as well as Marlena (Lizzy Caplan)- a quirky girl who Hud has a crush on, and Beth (Odette Yustman), the girl Rob loves but who he broke up with because he was going to Japan and didn’t think it was fair to her to stay together. She arrives at the party with another guy, which pisses Rob off, so Beth goes home early. About twenty minutes into all this, something happens. The lights go out and there are what appear to be earthquake tremors, followed by a loud roar. The kids are dumb-founded and go up to the roof to see what the noise is all about. They see explosions off in the horizon. They then go down to the street just in time to see the head of the Statue of Liberty bouncing down the street like a bowling ball. Things just get worse from there.
We never really know what the “thing” is, or where it came from, but there’s a giant monster loose in the New York City and it’s pushing over skyscrapers and stomping on cars like they’re made of cardboard. The rest of the movie features the kids running around the city, and eventually Rob makes it his mission to go to Beth’s apartment building to save her, with Lilly, Marlena and Hud coming along for the ride. Throughout, Hud films the proceedings as they get weirder and weirder.
At one point, strange spidery things leap from the humungous monster – they’re some sort of parasites – and these things turn out to be pretty deadly too, taking out a few of the soldiers who are pounding the big monster with bullets and missiles and tank fire.
In one particularly creepy moment, the kids travel underground through abandoned subway tracks, and are attacked by the spidery things. Marlena even gets bitten trying to save Hud. It’s good stuff.
We never really get a close look at the monster, but we do catch some good glimpses of him, and he’s a big one. He’s got elongated arms and rows of vicious teeth. Even though we never get a crystal-clear look at it, what we do see is pretty menacing, and pretty cool.
I have to admit, I loved this movie.
MA: I did too. In fact, it’s been a while since I’ve liked a horror movie this much, and I agree with pretty much everything you said.
Regarding the monster, I was hoping to get a good look at it, too, and I think there is one scene towards the end where you do get a good look at it, and so the film delivers on that front, and I didn’t feel cheated. That being said, I was a little disappointed with the look of the creature, not a lot, mind you, and certainly not enough for me not to recommend this movie. I just thought it looked a little— for lack of a better word – goofy. It wasn’t awful goofy, but let’s put it this way, it was scarier unseen.
LS: Aw, come on! I thought it looked cool.
MA: Yeah, if you like STAR WARS creatures, because that’s what it reminded me of. But that’s just a minor point. The bigger point, and if there’s one thing I want to say about CLOVERFIELD, it’s this: get out there and see this movie. It’s one of the best horror movies I’ve seen in a long, long time. So go see it.
LS: I do have some other things to say.
MA (excitedly interrupting): Go see this movie! It’s good!
LS: Yeah, yeah. Let me talk, will ya? The original GODZILLA movie was a way for Japan to deal with the horrors of Hiroshima in the context of fantasy. It’s been pointed out that CLOVERFIELD seems to have a similar agenda in mind, as the monster strikes NYC without warning and crumbles buildings to dust, sending black ash through the streets. It certainly seems like an allegory for 9-11. It’s interesting how the fantasy element – the monster – allows us to distance ourselves from the real life horrors and look at it in a different way. Kind of like how Rod Serling used science fiction in THE TWILIGHT ZONE to confront real issues like racism and totalitarianism.
MA: I agree with the 9-11 connection. The scenes where the buildings crumble to dust; it’s hard to think of anything else. Definitely, years from now, the movie will be remembered as a symbolic reaction and re-telling of 9-11, just as GODZILLA was back in 1954 for Japan.
In fact, I’ll go so far as to say 9-11 is one of the reasons why this film works so well, why it’s so frightening, because we’ve seen this sort of thing before. New York, people screaming, fleeing in the streets, and the erratic, frantic camerawork is so much like the footage we saw on that awful day. It strikes a nerve.
LS: Some people have complained about the camerawork. It’s all so jumpy and chaotic that it will definitely become irritating to some people. In this respect, it reminds me a lot of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (another movie that built buzz on the internet and pretended to be “found” real footage). But the thing is, the camerawork is what the movie is all about. It’s supposed to look like a home movie – an attack on NY told from the point of view of normal people on the street with camcorders – and with everyone running around – which is what would happen in real life – so the camerawork wouldn’t always be the best. I think they really exploit this aspect well, and that it works. The movie has a documentary feel to it that allows you to suspend your disbelief pretty easily. MA: I’m sure there are those people who will complain about the camerawork. After all, it’s not the traditional camerawork used in the movies. It’s creative, energetic, and exceedingly refreshing. People complained about the moving camera in THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, too. Speaking of BLAIR WITCH, as I was leaving the movie theater, one of the theater-goers standing next to me had a great line that I wish I could take credit for, but I can’t, because he said it. He said CLOVERFIELD was like THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT on steroids. And it was.
CLOVERFIELD actually takes this creative camera play to another level, making it far superior to BLAIR WITCH. I remember when watching THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT thinking how its style had its limitations. Here, in CLOVERFIELD, the storytelling doesn’t have these limitations. For example, you really get to know the characters just as well as you would in a regular narrative, and it’s mostly because of some very sharp and clever writing by screenwriter Drew Goddard.
Also, shooting from the point of view of the characters usually limits you in terms of story. You can only see what they’re seeing. But in CLOVERFIELD this tactic worked. If anything, it expanded on the strength of the story. Not being able to see clearly really added to the suspense, and the terrified camera work of Hud was frightening. You felt as if you were right there with them. And I’m sure this also helped in keeping the special effects budget down, as we don’t have to see the monster a whole lot for it to be effective.
Plus, some of the best monster movies of all time didn’t make their mark by showing the monster all the time. It’s often best to show glimpses here and there. It can be so much scarier that way, as long as in those glimpses there’s a payoff, otherwise, it’s a rip-off. Think of the first HALLOWEEN (1978). John Carpenter hardly shows us Michael Myers until the end. Before that, he’s here and there, in and out of the shadows like a phantom, which is much scarier than the way he’s depicted in the sequels, in plain view, moving about like a snail. Real scary! Think HORROR OF DRACULA (1958), one of the scariest Dracula films of all time. Christopher Lee is on screen for all of 7 minutes, but you wouldn’t know it by watching it.
LS: I also thought that the characters were likable and fleshed out a little more than characters usually are in this kind of movie.
MA: Definitely, definitely.
LS: Hud is actually a pretty funny character, making inappropriate jokes at the wrong time, and focusing the camera on Marlena as much as possible as he tries to woo her, but has no idea how to do it. Rob and Lilly are good characters, too. The fact that most of these actors are unknowns added to the realism of it all. The only actor I recognized was Chris Mulkey (who was previously on the series TWIN PEAKS, as well as countless movies).
MA: Hud is probably the funniest and most likable character I’ve ever NOT seen in a movie. He’s behind the camera most of the time, and yet he’s such a strong character.
LS: The effects were pretty good, and I thought this movie really did a great job of showing a monster attack from the point of view of the poor people in the city. In Godzilla films and the like, the city dwellers are not much more than ants to be stomped on. But here, you can feel the people’s terror as they try to flee and get out of the way of a massive behemoth.
MA: Again, I agree. I thought the special effects were excellent.
(They peek out of the subway exit to see the Statue of Liberty’s head in the middle of the street. A man in a loin cloth beats his chest and pounds the ground, shouting, “You blew it up! Damn it all to hell! Filthy apes!)”
MA (waving): Hey Charlton!
LS: I thought the movie was damn suspenseful throughout, and intense. I really got caught up in it and had no idea what would happen next. I haven’t seen such a good use of suspense in a movie in a long time. After years of seeing giant monster movies where the creatures are often laughable guys in rubber suits, this was one of the few times that a giant monster seemed truly dangerous and scary.
I thought the filmmakers did drop the ball on the monster’s roar, though. One thing that really worked for me in Steven Spielberg’s version of WAR OF THE WORLDS was the loud metallic grinding that the Martian death machines made. They SOUNDED scary. But the roar of the CLOVERFIELD monster seems anemic in comparison. I don’t know if it’s because the creators didn’t want this monster to sound too much like Godzilla or what, but a more ferocious roar now and again would have really ratcheted up the scares. And we should have heard it more often. And when missiles and bombs are hitting it, a loud agonized scream would have worked great too. I just don’t think the movie exploits the power of sounds as well as it could have.
MA: I disagree. I liked the roar. I thought it was scary. It gave me chills.
LS: It could have been even better.
(Giant man-sized crabs start approaching them from the subway tunnels. They’re chanting “Crab People!” over and over again)
LS: Ohmigod! It’s the Crab People from South Park!
MA: Ouch! I think one bit me!
(LS pulls out a pot of melted butter and a nutcracker. The monster crabs run away.)
MA: That was a close one. Thanks.
LS: Rats, I was hoping to catch one for dinner. I even have a can of Old Bay in my pocket.
I did like the lack of a soundtrack, though. It was nice not to have distracting music to deal with, and of course the lack of music added to the realism of the whole thing. I stayed until the end credits and it’s funny that once the credits start rolling, they do play some orchestral, ominous Godzilla-type music. But it’s only after the movie is over. I was also surprised to see several songs listed at the end, as being part of the soundtrack. I guess they must have been playing during the party scenes in the beginning, because I didn’t notice them at all.
Another thing I liked about the movie was that it seemed like a do-over for the American version of GODZILLA in a way. Where Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin totally failed to capture the feel of either a Japanese giant monster film, or something truly fresh and different (their GODZILLA seemed more like a JURASSIC PARK retread), CLOVERFIELD takes pretty much the same idea and takes it into totally new and exciting territory.
I really enjoyed this movie and was engaged from start to finish.
MA: I kind of saw the ending coming though. I don’t want to be a spoiler, so I won’t say much about it, but the general feel of the whole film, and from the way it started, with the discovered videotape, you kind of had the feeling where it was going to go. Again, it didn’t ruin the movie for me, but it also wasn’t the film’s strongest point.
(More roaring from above, followed by the awful singing of more ridiculous children’s songs).
LS (covers ears): Make it stop!
A soldier enters the tunnel.
MA: Sir, sir! What is it out there?
Soldier: We don’t know. But whatever it is, it’s singing.
MA (to soldier): Do you happen to have a bandage? I’ve got this bite on my shoulder—.
Soldier: (Eyes widen in horror. Screams into walkie-talkie): BITE! WE’VE GOT A BITE VICTIM HERE!
A troop of soldiers race in and grab MA, dragging him off.
MA: What is it? Where are you taking me? (Suddenly starts singing children’s songs) “I like you. You like me. We’re a big happy fam—.”
LS (screams): What’s happening??? What are you doing to him? (Turns to camera and smiles). Like I didn’t have this planned all along. (Waves towards MA) See ya pal!
That’ll keep him busy. See you next time, folks.
(FADE TO BLACK)
(Originally published on Fear Zone on 1/21/08)
© Copyright 2008 by Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares